Thursday, December 17, 2009

Communicating for Understanding...

...Not to Just to Prove a Point

Via Wikimedia Commons There are many books about communication in marriage: Techniques, strategies, ways to help your spouse listen, ways to make discussion more productive, fair fighting rules, ways to validate, and so on.  At the heart of all these is one central theme, "Do you understand your spouse?"  Not have you figured him/her out, but do you truly understand why they think, feel, believe, act the way that they do.  Most of us do not take the time or effort to understand our spouses.  If we did you would eliminate the majority of conflict that exists in your relationship.  Mutual understanding is the gold medal of communication.  Understanding is often sacrificed for proving a point or being right. 

Often what we think, feel, believe, say, and do makes sense to us.  That is to say there is a valid underlying reason for the things we feel, believe, say, and do.  These reasons make a lot of sense to us personally.  One thing we do not like is things that cause us to feel uncomfortable.  Not understanding why we are the way that we are leads us to feel uncomfortable.  We will accept a bad reason over no reason at all.  That being said our reason is valid.  Now it can be that our valid reason is based on faulty information and/or experiences, but our acting in regard to this faulty information is valid. 

Earlier in the week one in my family thought they heard someone outside late at night.  For me it was a reaction of adrenaline.  I can't say that I was afraid persey, but more in the mode of defense.  I had a valid reason for feeling defensive (the belief that someone was in our back yard).  Then next morning I looked in the back yard and found that some stuff had blown over in the wind causing what sounding like a person outside.  My valid reaction was based on a faulty belief.  The faulty belief though does not make my feelings, thoughts, and actions any less valid.  They make sense to me. 

Often times in marriage conflict our point of view makes sense to us.  We feel valid in that position.  Then our spouse comes out of left field with another positions that sound ridicules (note the invalidating way I put that more on invalidation in a future post).  Then we think (or more appropriately react) base on the assumption that if my position makes sense to me, and I do not understand you position then obviously you are wrong.  When in reality the only thing we have done is to fail to understand.  Communication for understanding begins with the premise that, "Just because I don't understand you does not mean that you are wrong, It simply means I do not understand you!"

Two questions you should ask yourself when you are in conflict:  1) What do I feel and does it make sense?  2) Does the person I am having conflict with make sense?   If you answer no to the first question then it is time to cut off the conversation get alone and sort out your feelings and thoughts.  If you do not understand yourself then it is unlikely that others will as you try to communicate it.  Spreading internal confusion is likely to make the person you are talking to confused.  If you answer yes to the first question but no to the second, then it is time to stop listening to the internal voice saying "but they are wrong" and engaged in seeking understanding.  Until you understand adequately you are unlikely to be helpful and often we increase the conflict by our lack of understanding.  You might try something like, "What you just said was ... I am having trouble understanding.  Could you explain that to me?"  By the way it is no fair to use this language to portray yourself as seeking to understand, but in the end you goal is to point out that the person is confused or wrong.  That is demeaning.  You need to seek genuine understanding for this to work!

"But I don't agree with them!"

That is OK!  Understanding and agreement are two different things.  It seems that marriage is one of the few relationships in which we have an unhealthy expectation that the other person is going to agree with every thought, feeling belief, and action as we do.  The fact is that you are two different people with different backgrounds and personalities.  You will not agree all the time.  If you say you are agreeing all the time then one or both of you are lying.  If you are not lying then chances are you have a spouse that does not tell you everything, but chooses to acquiesce to your position on all matters.  This will ultimately damage your relationship. 

Understanding is the ability to see the other person's reason for the way that they are responding to you.  It is seeing this as being valid even when it may be based on faulty beliefs and/or experiences.  We can understand someone without agreeing with them.  When we express this understanding it keeps the communication channels open and leads to greater awareness and intimacy with the other person.  On the other hand refusing to understand (intentionally or unintentionally) will shut down communication and lead to increased feelings of isolation in the relationship. 

In this way understanding proceeds agreement.  When agreement proceeds understanding then it is forced upon the person and they have to accept it like a surrender at the end of a conflict.  When understanding proceeds agreement then there is a huge opportunity to come together and grow in the relationship.  One huge drawback of this approach is that it takes time and effort, which are often in short supply in strained relationships.  It also requires a high level of self-discipline and self-sacrifice.  However these are worth it in light of a better relationship. 

I hope you all have a wonderful day.